On Christmas Day, the Rockets handed the Spurs their last loss prior to Monday's defeat in Oakland, but in between, San Antonio won 13 straight.
Now a season-high three games over .500 and lurking a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks for the sixth seed in the Western Conference, the Rockets are looking to deliver another loss to San Antonio -- a tall order considering the Spurs haven't lost a game at home all season.
ESPN NBA reporters Calvin Watkins and Michael C. Wright take a look at the teams headed into Wednesday's Rockets-Spurs matchup at the AT&T Center (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN):
Wright: Let's cut through any of the softball questions. Is J.B. Bickerstaff the real deal? Is he the man who can get the Rockets back where they need to be? Frankly, I was shocked when they fired Kevin McHale.
Watkins: Pump your brakes, Michael. The Rockets are 21-15 with Bickerstaff and still have problems. It's still too early to determine whether Bickerstaff is the long-term answer here. He isn't afraid to make changes to the lineup. Two significant adjustments were benching guard Ty Lawson and power forward Terrence Jones. Defensively, the team still struggles, although it has improved. If Bickerstaff is to keep the job long term, a visit into the second round of the playoffs will help immensely. If not, expect an extensive search to replace him.
Why is it so hard to beat the Spurs at home?
Wright: After what I saw Monday night in Oakland, I think the Warriors also could take a victory in San Antonio. I'm kidding. Sort of. The Spurs haven't lost a game at home all season, going 24-0, and their last regular-season loss at the AT&T Center goes back to March 12 against the Cavaliers. That's a 33-game winning streak. Already enjoying the league's best defense overall (94 points allowed per 100 possessions), the Spurs are even better at home, allowing an NBA-best 92.9 points. San Antonio's offense also picks up its production at home, averaging 110.1 points per 100 possessions (up from 108.2 overall), trailing only the Warriors.
While San Antonio's players usually act unaware of all the milestones they've accomplished at the AT&T Center, I think deep down there's a ton of pride about what they've done on their home court. Obviously, the crowd plays into it, providing some extra juice for the Spurs. But I'm also sure the familiarity of playing at home and the luxury of enjoying the set routine comes into play, too. You've been at the AT&T Center when that place gets rocking, so you know how daunting an atmosphere that could be for an opposing team. That's why I'm really looking forward to the Spurs-Warriors rematch on March 19 at the AT&T Center. Then we'll really see how big of a factor home court is for the Spurs.
What do the Rockets have to do to make it back to the level they were at last season? Coming into this season, I expected this team to be much better than we've seen.
Watkins: Everyone was stunned the Rockets reached the conference finals last season, especially after trailing 3-1 in their series against the Clippers -- it was a remarkable achievement. When the Rockets play with ball movement and make a commitment to defense, they're pretty good. The roster has talented players, but the Rockets have been inconsistent, and that in itself is maddening. The trade for Josh Smith has helped with ball movement and defense during this three-game win streak. He has brought a relaxed vibe around the team, something that has been missing of late.
Wright: At one point, I thought there was a chance. But I think Leonard's prospects are diminishing. That's not to take away from anything he has done. But the way Curry is playing right now is unreal, man. I'm just keeping it real here. As well as Leonard has played, he simply isn't on Curry's level. But really, who is? I know it's only one game, but the truth is, from this vantage point, it was pretty shocking to see the type of game Curry was able to produce on Monday night with Leonard defending him in several instances. There were times Leonard, the league's reigning defensive player of the year, looked lost defending Curry. That rarely happens to a lockdown defender like Leonard.
Watkins: Each player has been fantastic over the past few games. Harden has averaged 28.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 9.6 assists in his past five games. Harden, while still dominating the ball, has been an efficient passer and is showing signs of trusting his teammates more often.
Howard was shooting 66 percent from the floor in his last 16 games before he went down with an ankle sprain. The Rockets need him as a rim protector, as evidenced by his recording double-doubles in 10 consecutive games before his injury. Houston has plenty of other parts to help The Beard and Superman, but for now, the pair has been very dynamic when on the floor together.
After the game on Wednesday, what's the toughest stretch for the Spurs?
Wright: Well, after starting the week getting destroyed by Golden State on the road, the Spurs close the week on the road Saturday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tim Duncan (knee) already will miss this matchup against the Rockets, so it will be interesting to see whether he's healthy enough to return for the Cavs. If Duncan can't play, David West is more than capable of picking up the slack. But if Duncan is out of the picture, the Spurs sort of lose an edge psychologically, in my opinion. After the matchup at Cleveland, the Spurs won't face another difficult stretch until the Rodeo Road Trip, which begins on Feb. 9 at Miami and closes Feb. 27 in Houston. That's eight consecutive games on the road, man. Brutal.